Corporate Personhood

September 24th, 2009

Oh say can you see?

With a case before the United States Supreme Court regarding the rights of corporations as persons (Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission), and with a lot of hyperbole coming from instant experts on the subject, I figured it would be nice to brainstorm some repercussions. Not likely repercussions, but conceivable repercussions for the Supreme Court finding that the 14th amendment applies to entities like Exxon, Starbucks, or Google.

I’ll warm up with some things I’ve heard folks like Thom Hartmann and Randi Rhodes put forward:

  • With equal protection under the law and money being a form of speech (Buckley v. Valeo), companies will be able to buy political candidates on an unprecedented scale through massive media purchases and such, tipping the scales on the election process.
  • Under the second amendment to the constitution, corporations would have the right to bear arms. Corporate armies come immediately to mind, and certain self-defense principles start getting a little scary.
  • In some jurisdictions corporations could run for elected office. Mayor General Electric?

Depending on where you are in you daily medicinal regimen, the above theories can sound pretty reasonable, scary, or ridiculous. Let’s carry on with some more ramifications:

  • Under the 13th amendment, people cannot be held as property, as slaves. This would make it illegal to be a shareholder in a corporation or compel it to any particular action. This would also prevent one corporation from purchasing or selling another.
  • Corporations are generally thought, as legal constructs, to be indistinguishable from their owners (particularly if a single natural person bears a majority of shares). In regards to elections, this means that any corporation at least partly owned by foreign persons (natural or otherwise) would be subject to regulations regarding foreign interests interfering in our political processes. No more contributions or political ads from any transnational or widely-traded corporation.
  • Corporations would be subject to personal income tax (many at the top bracket)
  • Corporations could be compelled to purchase health insurance under some variants of the current health care reform bills.
  • Corporations could be jailed or even put to death for various criminal acts. I’m not sure how one would administer a lethal injection to a legal entity, but that’s Texas to figure out.
  • In some states, where marriage is defined as a civil union between two consenting persons, perhaps companies could get married. Could this lead to issues with anti-poligamy laws in the case of conglomerates?
  • Corporate board members that run their companies into the ground could be brought up on homicide charges.

I’m certain there are more.

2 Responses to “Corporate Personhood”

  1. morte Says:

    Interestingly, Sonia Sotomayor brought this up during oral arguments, and thinks the notion of granting personhood to corporations ought to be re-examined: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB125314088285517643.html

  2. Burrowowl Says:

    Oh, it’s a serious issue all right, and a legitimate factor in the Citizens United v. FEC case. I just prefer a tongue-in-cheek approach to thinking about the matter. Corporations aren’t “persons” as we normally think of such things. They can’t babysit your kids or cut you off in traffic or any of the things we normally associate with persons.

    So what can they do? As legal abstractions, they can do legal things: enter into contracts, own property, pay taxes, sue and be sued in court. These are things that natural persons can do that inanimate objects cannot, that most abstract things cannot. It seems clear from what I know of the circumstances that brought about the 14th amendment that its writers had no intention of protecting abstract legal constructs such as corporations from government interference.

    Clearly there are legal abstractions that have protected speech rights — political parties immediately come to mind — but even they are subject to corruption countermeasures.

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